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Business and Economy

Tight Supply Leads to Highest Maine Lobster Prices in Years

PORTLAND, Maine - The long winter may now be over but its effect is still being felt in the Maine lobster industry. That's because there's a shortage of supply, and consumers have been paying more for lobsters lately than they have in the past five years.
Business is slow at New Meadows Lobster dealers, on Portland's waterfront. A constant stream of sea water pours into row upon row of tanks. But most of the tanks contain little in the way of lobsters.

In fact, says owner Peter McAleney, today they have less than 10 percent of the lobsters they would normally have in a good year. "Honestly? Worst winter we've had in 35 years - business-wise, price-wise, for the processors, for the fishermen, for everybody," he says. "It was just a bad winter all the way round."

McAleney says severe weather scuppered one the busiest nights of the year for lobster consumption - New Year's Eve, when airports across the country were forced to close because of snow. Transportation was disrupted for several days.
 
"Mother nature can be real tricky you know," he says. "That's basically what happened."

And the cold weather continues. It's more than a month into the official start of spring and the waters of Casco Bay have yet to warm up. "This year the water's really cold," McAleney says. "I think it's 38 degrees right now. Last year at this time it was about 44. And then you had all that fresh water that comes out - pushes the lobsters way out to sea now."

He talking about runoff - caused by snow melt and exacerbated by recent rainstorms. Not good, he says, because lobsters don't do well in fresh water.

"In fact, we had to shut a whole tank house down yesterday:  We had too much fresh water in the harbor, so we shut right down. But we didn't have that many lobsters to worry about. We just put them on the floor, they were fine. And when the tide changed we just put them back in the water."

"Everything's going to be later this year, and slower," says Dave Cousens, a lobsterman in Midcoast Maine. He says fishermen used to be able to set their clocks by the behavior of Maine's lobsters - where they can be found, when they shed their shells. Now, he says, the changing environment has made lobstering a far less predictable business than it used to be.

"There is no normal," Cousens says. "For the last, like, 30 years, nothing's normal. With climate change everything's been all over the place."

He says the unusually cold water temperatures mean the lobsters are less active on the ocean floor and harder to catch than usual. "The lobsters aren't trapping right now. It's cold. That's why you're seeing a $9 or $10 dollar boat price, because there aren't any."

Nine or ten dollars a pound at the wharf means consumers have been paying $15 or more per pound recently. Prof. Robert Bayer, from the University of Maine's Lobster Institute, says those are the highest prices in at least five years.

But Bayer says they could already be on their way back down again. "That has changed in the last couple of of days and will continue to change in the next week or so, because what's happened is there are a couple of areas in Canada that have opened."

This week the lobstering season got underway in Newfoundland and part of Quebec. "And in another week or so, Prince Edward Island will open," Bayer says.

And Bayer predicts that increase in supply will drive down lobster prices to friendlier levels. Indeed, on Thursday, Portland lobster dealer Peter McAleney reported prices had come down to about $7 a pound.

And South Thomaston lobsterman Dave Cousens sees the influx of Canadian lobster sending prices lower still. "I'm assuming the price will start dropping any day now and the price will go down to around five or six bucks."

But, he says, that's assuming the Prince Edward Island lobster fleet can get out to sea on May 1, when its season is due to start. Last time he checked, he says they were still iced in up there.